Analysts See Ups but Mostly Downs Before a Rough 4Q

May 4th, 2020 by Drew Vass, Executive Editor

As the effects of shutdowns weigh on the U.S. economy and unemployment heads for levels that could exceed the Great Depression, leading economists say some minor improvements could arrive in third quarter 2020. As relief measures expire, however, fourth-quarter 2020 will likely bring another hit, they warn, before the economy limps off to a recovery.

Those economic predictions are predicated by the trajectory for COVID-19, as analysts are forced to, “become an amateur epidemiologist,” says Cris deRitis, deputy chief economist for Moody’s Analytics. So far, the virus is following a path that fits within the three to eight million cases on which analysts have based their forecasts, but a surprise factor arrived in April when the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) showed an annualized decline of 4.8%. First-quarter GDP was previously expected to register at around a 2.5% drop, says Richard Branch, chief economist for Dodge Data and Analytics. As a result, Dodge has now lowered its expectations for second-quarter GDP to an annualized contraction of 24%, he says, where the firm was previously predicting a drop of 18.3%.

“That’s a direct result of asking everyone to stay home, shutting down, locking down vast parts of the country,” deRitis says. “There’s a huge supply side effect there. People just can’t go to work. Businesses are not allowed to operate, and therefore there’s this large contraction.”

And while in third-quarter 2020, deRitis says the U.S. could see a 15% growth rate, those changes, he warns, will likely be the calm before a storm of bankruptcies.

“Second quarter, everyone’s at home, locked down and the economy shrinks,” he says. “Third quarter we go back to work and start recovering.” But, “By the fourth quarter, some of the businesses that have opened up will find that they just can’t survive,” he adds. And that, he says, will likely bring another wave of closures.

In the meantime, as some door and window dealers express concern over how expanded unemployment benefits could keep workers from returning to help keep their businesses afloat, deRitis says those losses are likely a calculated part of the government’s plan for clamping down infections.

“There are households out there that are actually earning more now, because of the direct payments and the $600 in extra unemployment insurance that they’re receiving,” he says. “Part of that is certainly by design. There’s a virus, so we want people to be incentivized to stay at home, because we want to try to avoid the spread of the virus. We want people to sit at home for a while and not integrate back … That’s part of the reason why I don’t expect to see a very swift recovery over the next month or two, even as you might see some states opening up, because there will be some of those incentives.”

Even with the economy and labor market in turmoil, some analysts say it isn’t a far-fetched hope to suggest that housing could hold up. In mid-April, Dodge announced that it expects home sales to decline by as much as 50% in the second quarter and a 19% decline in starts for 2020. As such, the next couple of months are expected to be “nasty,” deRitis admits. But with the mortgage industry on stronger footing than it found in 2008, “I think housing will not only carry on, but it actually will be the engine of some growth,” he says. “People are going to want to take advantage of lower interest rates. If house prices do come down a bit, or they stabilize, that also should help prod some people to push things along. So yeah, short term, I’m obviously very pessimistic, but rooting for longer term, I remain convinced that housing will be an engine of growth.”

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